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Protesters as terrorists?

An ethnographic analysis of the political process behind the broadened scope of anti-terrorism legislation

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The attack on the World Trade Center in September 2001 in New York has led to a worldwide increase in anti-terrorism legislation and much debate about the proper (legitimate, proportional and effective) response to the perceived threat of mass casualty attacks. In practice, however, anti-terrorism legislation is frequently applied in criminal cases that are unrelated to such mass casualty attacks. Instead, terrorism charges are leveled against conduct that was previously not categorized as terrorism and which is not always easy to distinguish from ordinary crimes, civil disobedience or legitimate protest activities, such as aggressive leafleting, sabotage of machinery, arson and offensive speech. This article explores the political process behind the categorization of such conduct as “terrorism” and the expanded scope of anti-terrorism legislation in the United States, Spain and Chile. Based on ethnographic fieldwork and the analysis of cases in which conduct is newly charged as terrorism, the author shows that these charges are the result of a deliberate campaign by groups in society that feel neglected by the government and appeal to the terrorism label in their demand for better protection.

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  1. There is no universally accepted definition of terrorism, which hinges on disagreement about the recognition or denial of state behavior and colonial struggles as terrorism (known as the “right of resistance”) [56, p.25; 107]. Some scholars have questioned whether (transnational) terrorist acts should be considered a crime instead of, for example, an act of war, or a third category [25] and whether such acts can be prosecuted in ordinary criminal courts. The cases in this article are limited to conduct and legislation where terrorism has squarely been defined as a crime. Indeed, in none of the cases does the question rise whether the actions in question should be considered acts of war or a third category.

  2. For example Human Rights Watch regularly makes such analyses, criticizing overly broad formulations in draft laws, such as in the Philippines:

    Human Rights Watch is concerned that this definition is vague and overbroad, and could allow the government to transform less serious offenses, such as vandalism, or legitimate acts of protest, into crimes punishable by a mandatory 40-year sentence. Under this definition, for example, a political protestor demanding that the president resign, who sets fire to an effigy (committing arson or destruction of property), could conceivably be charged with terrorism and, if convicted, sent to prison for 40 years. [52]

    Human Rights Watch also, for example, recommends the UK government change the definition of its Terrorism Act “so as to limit its potential misapplication against peaceful protesters” [53, p.25].

  3. Hess specifically emphasizes the stigmatizing function of the terrorism label [47].

  4. Demleitner has noted that it is not even that straightforward to determine what, among anti-terrorism statutes and provisions, exactly counts as a terrorism offense [19, p.38]. For the purposes of this article, anti-terrorism legislation is understood to be every provision that explicitly labels conduct as “terrorism.”

  5. Another airplane was used to attack the Pentagon.

  6. Indeed, anyone seeming to challenge this conclusion risks social exclusion or retribution, as was shown by the firing of Ward Churchill from the University of Colorado over a controversial essay in which he argued that American foreign policy provoked the attacks.

  7. An organization that provides research, analysis and advice to governments and intergovernmental bodies on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict (website


  9. Interview with author, November 2007, New Jersey.

  10. Interviews with author in the United States, Chile, and Spain, 2007-2009.

  11. Interview with author, June 2008, Madrid.

  12. The PKK (Kurdistan Workers’ Party) is an organization in Turkey which is designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

  13. The U.S. Patriot Act was signed into law on October 26, 2001.

  14. A full analysis of the development of criminal prosecutions in each of the countries in this article can be found in the author’s dissertation Ethnographies of Contentious Criminalization: Expansion, Ambivalence, Marginalization, submitted in fulfillment of the JSD Degree at Columbia Law School, 2012, available at:

  15. In many different judgments the United States, Spain, and Chile are currently considered to be well established democracies. See for example Accessed June 1, 2007 (I only accepted division 1); Polity IV Project, accessed June 30th, 2007 (I only accepted level 9/10); accessed 4 November 2009 (I only accepted level 1/2). These high ratings by no means indicate a perfect liberal democracy. They do, however, indicate that these are currently the actual liberal democracies that are furthest developed towards the ideal type.

  16. The same statements are also reproduced on the website of the fur commission, a part of which is devoted to the case against Peter Young:

  17. AETA: ‘Sec. 43. Force, violence, and threats involving animal enterprises

    ‘(a) Offense- Whoever travels in interstate or foreign commerce, or uses or causes to be used the mail or any facility of interstate or foreign commerce—

    ‘(1) for the purpose of damaging or interfering with the operations of an animal enterprise; and

    ‘(2) in connection with such purpose—

    ‘(A) intentionally damages or causes the loss of any real or personal property (including animals or records) used by an animal enterprise, or any real or personal property of a person or entity having a connection to, relationship with, or transactions with an animal enterprise;

    ‘(B) intentionally places a person in reasonable fear of the death of, or serious bodily injury to that person, a member of the immediate family (as defined in section 115) of that person, or a spouse or intimate partner of that person by a course of conduct involving threats, acts of vandalism, property damage, criminal trespass, harassment, or intimidation; or

    ‘(C) conspires or attempts to do so;

    shall be punished as provided for in subsection (b).

  18. Conversation January 2010, Durango.

  19. Cristóbal Díaz Lombardo even criticizes the politicization of victims, who have gone “from not having voice or vote to the ability to influence the vote” [13, p.40].

  20. In the words of the Chief Prosecutor at the Audiencia Nacional in Madrid, interview with author, May 2008, Madrid.

  21. 15 November 2007, Audiencia Nacional, #67/2007.

  22. “The knowledge of what the letters ETA mean and the symbol of the coiled snake and the axe are public and notorious” (Verdict, 2nd consideration).

  23. This indicates a difference therefore from the crime of apologia [endorsement], which as Landáburu points out, is a crime in relation to the general offense of membership in a terrorist organization [60, p.15].

  24. Law 7/2000 is a further modification of article 577 of the Penal Code.

  25. Indeed, the Chief Prosecutor of the Audiencia Nacional regarded this legal reform necessary to continue the prosecution of Kale Borroka as terrorist crimes. Interview of author with the Chief Prosecutor of the Audiencia Nacional, Madrid, May 2008.

  26. For the different hypotheses regarding the motivation, occurrence and targets of street violence, see for example, de la Calle Robles [18] and van den Broek [100].

  27. Tribunal Supremo Sala 2ª, S 8-7-1994, nº 1398/1994, rec. 35/1994.

  28. Tribunal Supremo Sala 2ª, S 8-7-1994, nº 1398/1994, rec. 35/1994, sixth consideration. The Court emphasized that the imposed sentence was the minimum allowed by the law for that particular offense.

  29. Interviews with author, January – June 2008.

  30. Testimony of J.L. during the trial against the Lonkos of Traiguén, April 2003, Causa R.I.T. 2-2003 R.U.C. 0100083503-6 Fiscalía Traiguen, Codigo: 00837. In January 2013, this landowner and his wife died when their house was set on fire [44].

  31. The anti-terrorist law determines that specifically enumerated crimes can be considered “terrorist” crimes when they are committed[c]on la finalidad de producir en la población o en una parte de ella el temor justificado de ser víctima de delitos de la misma especie, sea por la naturaleza y efectos de los medios empleados, sea por la evidencia de que obedece a un plan premeditado de atentar contra una categoría o grupo determinado de personas [with the objective to produce in the population or a part of it the justified fear to be victim of crimes of the same sort, either because of the nature and effects of the used medium, or because it evidently obeys to a premeditated plan to attack against a category or specific group of persons.] Article 1 of Law No. 18.314 (Law on Terrorist Conduct). This law has been changed several times, most recently in October 2010. Now it adds a circumstance which can turn an act into a “terrorist” offense: sea porque se cometa para arrancar o inhibir resoluciones de la autoridad o imponerle exigencias [or because it is committed to run away from or inhibit decisions of the authorities or impose demands].

  32. Interviews with various Mapuche activists between November 2002 and April 2003

  33. Consideration 19, Appeals Court Concepcion, 4 June 2004.

  34. In September 2010, President Sebastián Piñera promised the hunger strikers to change the terrorism charges to ordinary crimes. On 8 October 2010, the Attorney General, however, refused to do this arguing that this would be illegal, unconstitutional, and that it could actually be a crime to change those charges [59].

  35. Interview with author, January 2003, Temuco, Chile.

  36. This was expressed repeatedly in the trial in April-June 2008, Madrid, against the prisoner support group Gestoras pro Amnistía, an organization that was held responsible, among other things, for the organization of honoring ceremonies for ex-convict ETA-members.

  37. Personal conversation, August 2010, Freiburg.

  38. While in most of the cases the sentences are indeed significantly higher than for ordinary crimes, there are exceptions. In the case of Peter Young for example, the RICO-based charges could have landed him in jail for 82 years. Under the terrorism charge of the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (AEPA), his charges were limited to 2 years.

  39. The Public Ministry in Chile is the organ responsible for criminal prosecutions.

  40. This is also why the judge dismissed the case.

  41. Activists sometimes claim that these actions should not be subjected to criminal prosecutions at all. There are occasions where such acts could indeed be considered a form of ‘civil disobedience’ or constitute legitimate resistance. Whether this is indeed the case and whether, under what conditions, and how such qualification should have an impact on a criminal justice response is, however, outside the scope of this paper.


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I would like to thank the Max Planck Institute for International and Foreign Criminal Law, the Oñati International Institute for the Sociology of Law, the DAAD, Marie Curie (HUMCRICON), Columbia Law School, the Huygens Scholarships Talent Programme, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds and the Dr. Hendrik Muller Vaderlandsch Fund for their financial support to the research that made this article possible. I would like to thank Sytske Groenewald, Andreas Armborst, Daniel Gregor, Bart Stapert, Dave Stewart, Teresa Manso, Susanne Forster and Chris Murphy for their helpful comments.

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Terwindt, C. Protesters as terrorists?. Crime Law Soc Change 62, 207–234 (2014).

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